It was the day that Alan Clark died. Or, to be precise, 7 September 1999: a few hours after the family of the maverick Conservative MP and acclaimed diarist had announced his death from a brain tumour at his home, Saltwood Castle in Kent, two days previously.
On that balmy evening, I sat in the garden of the Spectator’s offices in Bloomsbury waiting for another Conservative maverick – its recently appointed editor, Boris Johnson – to finish and file his column on Clark for the Daily Telegraph. After more than an hour, he emerged from his lair like a penitent labrador, shirt hanging out, hair, as ever, in music hall mode: “Sorry, old boy, sorry, you know how it is, sorry.”
We chatted amiably for several hours, not least about his plans for the magazine. “I want to make it a lot more Tory,” he insisted, sipping on his Sauvignon. “Yup. That’s the thing. More Tory.”
In recent weeks, I have been dwelling upon that memory, almost a quarter century old. This was not only a statement of editorial intent: it was also, clearly, a declaration of personal allegiance and ambition. By then, Johnson had already tried his hand as Tory candidate in the unwinnable seat of Clwyd South in the 1997 general election. But it was only during that conversation that I realised how deadly serious were his ambitions to become Tory leader and prime minister: ambitions that, at the time, were almost universally scorned in a party that saw him as a jester and rhetorician rather than a serious contender.
Already, however, he was becoming a darling of Tory association events and party conferences. In 2000, he was selected as Tory candidate in the safe Tory seat of Henley, due to be vacated by Michael Heseltine – which he won the following year with a majority of 8,400. From 2008 to 2016, he was Tory Mayor of London – returning to the Commons in 2015 as the Tory MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
Having led the Leave campaign to victory, Johnson withdrew from the Tory leadership campaign after his chief lieutenant, Michael Gove, deserted him at the eleventh hour – but became foreign secretary in Theresa May’s Tory government. In July 2019, he succeeded her to become the 28th Tory prime minister.
Pretty damn Tory, in other words – as he had indeed promised in our conversation, twenty years before. And yet there is a twist in this story, the full savagery of which has been brought home to me only in the past week. For, even as he has colonised, conquered and made the Tory movement his own, a cult of personality rather than a traditional party, he has almost destroyed it; tearing away its ancestral roots and traditions, replacing them with expediency, populism and a readiness to say and do anything.
You only have to list the core characteristics of Toryism, and judge how they have fared under Johnson, to realise that the lies, lawbreaking and indefensible evasions of “partygate” mark the end of a process rather than its beginning.
Start with the monarchy, devotion to which has always been one of the founding principles of Toryism. It embodies what Disraeli’s Harry Coningsby called “the cause of our glorious institutions”. Yet little more than a month after becoming PM, Johnson lied to the Queen in his request for the prorogation of parliament; claiming that the proposed five-week suspension was necessary to prepare the government’s legislative agenda – when its clear purpose was to thwart MPs seeking to delay or prevent Brexit. In September 2019, of course, the Supreme Court ruled that the request had also been unlawful.
Next, move on to the Church of England. The description of the Anglican Communion as “the Conservative Party at prayer” is usually traced back to a speech in 1917 by the Suffragette Agnes Maude Royden – but it captures a much older association between Toryism and the established Church. There have been tensions in that relationship before – notably in 1985, when the Faith in the City report commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, levelled strong criticisms at the economic and social policies of the Thatcher government.
Yet – as much as the Methodist Iron Lady disapproved of what she saw as the Anglicans’ failure to emphasise self-reliance – she never attacked the Archbishop personally. In contrast, at a meeting of Tory backbenchers last Tuesday, Johnson scorned Justin Welby for being “less vociferous” in his criticisms of Vladimir Putin than of the government’s Rwanda deportation plan.
No doubt some (perhaps many) Conservative MPs shared the PM’s opinion. The point is that he is the first Tory leader who would have dreamed of being so openly disinhibited in his contempt for the nation’s most senior clergyman. All of his predecessors, whatever their private convictions, would have paid heed to the party’s historic bond with the Church and the implicit constraints which that affinity imposed upon what he or she could say. Not so Johnson; no constraints there.
Third: consider the Union. In 1981, Thatcher told the Commons that “Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom; as much as my constituency is”. Eleven years later, John Major called the unity of the United Kingdom “the rock of our constitution.”
On Johnson’s watch, in contrast, the Tory dedication to the Union has become performative at best. His interest in Scotland is desultory (an enthusiasm that is reciprocated), an attitude that has stoked demands for a second referendum on independence. In his negotiations over Northern Ireland, he has repeatedly misled the Unionists and made abundantly clear that Brexit is a higher priority than the integrity of the UK.
In this respect, to be fair, he speaks for the party members who elected him leader: according to a YouGov poll in June 2019, 63 per cent regarded Scottish independence as a price worth paying for Brexit; 59 per cent said that they would prioritise departure from the EU over Northern Ireland’s continued status as part of the UK; 54 per cent even said that they would be willing to see the Tory Party “destroyed” if the reward was freedom from Brussels.
What one sees in all this is a party that was once defined by continuities, ancestral affinities and cussed traditions becoming almost completely unmoored. I would say that the Tories’ present economic policy was a hot mess – but that would be an insult to hot messes everywhere.
Johnson himself adores big spending upon grands projets and the pork barrel politics that he has chosen to rebrand as “levelling up”. On the other hand, he tried (unsuccessfully) to get Rishi Sunak to cancel the Health and Social Care Levy – the national insurance hikes that came into force on 6 April – on the grounds that he was in a political jam and needed a good news story.
Sunak, for his part, is an old-school Thatcherite with a picture of Nigel Lawson behind his desk who – in response to the pandemic – has nonetheless presided over colossal spending and borrowing and the increase of the tax burden to its highest level in 70 years. Confronted with a cost-of-living crisis, the chancellor has dug in his fiscally conservative heels.
Inflation is rising, growth is slowing. What is the Conservative strategy to deal with this? Where is the Tory Party’s historic belief that a clear and comprehensible economic trajectory is the basis of national stability? Answers on a postcard, please. Or perhaps more appropriately: on the back of an envelope.
Worse even than this economic incoherence is the Johnsonian disregard for the rule of law. Of all the patterns of behaviour that have been detectable in the first three years of his premiership, this is the most egregious: he is content for his government to threaten to break international treaties. As mentioned above, he tried to prorogue parliament unlawfully. And now, having received a fixed penalty notice for breaking Covid rules, he has become the first serving prime minister to have committed an offence: a dubious distinction, to say the least.
As the late Tom Bingham, former Master of the Rolls, observes in his great book on the subject, the rule of law is what distinguishes “Good and Bad Government… in a world divided by differences of nationality, race, colour, religion and wealth it is one of the greatest unifying factors.”
How many times did the PM ignore his government’s own legislation by attending the many Downing Street parties that are still under investigation by the Met and by Sue Gray, second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office? And are there photographs of his involvement in these revelries? The full extent of his breaches has yet to be established. But what is already clear is that – in spite of his notional apologies – he actually finds the whole business of scrutiny, investigation and accountability a monstrous impertinence. He is now subject to a third inquiry – by the Commons privileges committee, to establish whether or not he lied to Parliament about his rule-breaking. Clearly, he did. No less clearly, he doesn’t care.
One only had to watch him being interviewed in Gujarat during his trip to India last Thursday to see how irritated he is by the collective refusal to let the matter drop: as Channel 4’s political editor, Gary Gibbon, pointed out, more fixed penalty notices have been handed out at Number 10 that at any other address in the UK. You could see in the PM’s eyes what he really thinks: equality before the law is a fine thing – but some people are more equal than others.
And then there is Rwanda. Whatever you think of the Conservatives – of their elitism, their alleged indifference to the vulnerable, their inaction in the face of grave inequality – there have always been limits and red lines. In the One Nation tradition, there was a curious blend of patrician paternalism and post-Sixties social liberalism that often, if not unfailingly, acted as a brake upon the party’s harsher reflexes. But one of Johnson’s earliest acts was to purge the Tory benches of that tradition’s most conspicuous tribunes, withdrawing the whip from 21 MPs in September 2019.
Postwar Tory policy on immigration and asylum has ranged from the permissiveness of Reggie Maudling, a home secretary who privately considered open borders as an option, to the Hostile Environment Policy of Theresa May. There have been tough Labour home secretaries, too: notably, David Blunkett.
But no occupant of this great office of state before Priti Patel would, I think, have felt able to propose a scheme as overtly inhumane as the plan to deport single adult asylum seekers 4,000 miles away to Rwanda. True, there have been blueprints in the past to create “safe havens” for refugees outside the UK. But no previous home secretary would have dared to trample upon the most basic principles of national decency and Britain’s obligation to the desperate of the world with a plan so gratuitously and transparently intended to be horrible.
When Johnson became prime minister, I was assured by some of those who were desperately trying to convince themselves that it would all be fine that, once installed in Number 10, with Brexit out of the way, he would “pivot” to a gentler liberalism. How’s that plan working out for you, fellas?
Like a drunker hurdler, Johnson has crashed through barrier after barrier, disregarding every guard-rail and ethical boundary. He has applied to the public sphere precisely the same values that he applies to his private life: that rules are for little people, and that what advances his own interests is, axiomatically, a good thing.
The thing is: far too many people have gone along with this pathology for far too long for it be blamed on the PM alone. He has lived a charmed life of impunity, indulgence and serial reprieves. In the Commons on Thursday, the influential Tory MP Steve Baker invoked Ezekiel 7:3 (“Now is the end come upon thee, and I will send mine anger upon thee, and will judge thee according to thy ways, and will recompense upon thee all thine abominations”) and went on to observe that “if the prime minister occupied any other office of senior responsibility – if he were a secretary of state, a minister of state, a parliamentary under-secretary, a permanent secretary, a director general, a chief executive of a private company or a board director – he would be long gone.”
That is quite correct and it poses the question: why is he still in Number 10? Why, in the words of the former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, is the Conservative Party “too ashamed of the prime minister to defend him, but too weak to remove him?”
It is certainly true that the conflict in Ukraine has, in a grotesque sense, acted as a blood-stained buoy to which the previously sinking PM has been able to cling. It is easy for his allies to glibly compare a piece of birthday cake to the atrocities committed by Putin’s forces and demand a sense of “perspective”.
It is also typical of Johnson’s preternatural luck that his principal rival for the leadership, Rishi Sunak, has suffered such a precipitate fall from grace: a poorly received Spring Statement followed by the political car crash of his family’s tax affairs.
But I think the Tory Party’s inaction – its paralysis of will – also reflects something deeper. In his disregard for almost all the traditions of Toryism, and by making the party complicit in that indifference, he has led the movement into completely new terrain.
Once a tribe that was sure of its core values, and believed deeply in its traditions and standards, the Conservative Party has become little more than a hollowed-out, shrill populist campaign group, committed to nothing more than the acquisition and retention of power by any means necessary. It has been seduced by the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election into trading away all the principles that once cemented its identity and sense of purpose.
Now, like its leader, it stands for everything – and nothing. Its psyche is untethered, muddled, disoriented. On what basis, precisely, should it get rid of Johnson? To what covenant would it appeal in doing so? And with what future in mind?
It is still possible that Johnson will survive the present controversy, dragging his party with him like a battalion of zombies on a journey to nowhere. It is even just about conceivable – look at the polls, and Labour’s still modest lead – that he might cling on until the next general election and seek another term in office. Highly unlikely, for sure; but not inconceivable.
That this is so says nothing good about the state of our politics. The man who told me all those years ago that he wanted to make the magazine he edited more Tory has ended up sacrificing the entire centuries-old tradition of Toryism on the altar of his narcissism.
He has turned the most successful party in electoral history into a directionless, untamed, dangerous force, rampaging across the scorched earth of British democracy. Will those who elevated him now muster the courage to remove him? We shall find out soon enough. All we can be sure of, in this perilous twilight moment, is that the damage he has wrought upon party, people and nation will long outlast him.